The Thirteenth Tale
By: Diane Setterfield
Reclusive author Vida Winter, famous for her collection of twelve enchanting stories, has spent the past six decades penning a series of alternate lives for herself. Now old and ailing, she is ready to reveal the truth about her extraordinary existence and the violent and tragic past she has kept secret for so long.
Calling on Margaret Lea, a young biographer troubled by her own painful history, Vida disinters the life she meant to bury for good. Margaret is mesmerized by the author’s tale of gothic strangeness—featuring the beautiful and willful Isabelle, the feral twins Adeline and Emmeline, a ghost, a governess, a topiary garden and a devastating fire.
Together, Margaret and Vida confront the ghosts that have haunted them while becoming, finally, transformed by the truth themselves.
I used to re-read a lot growing up. I didn’t frequent to the bookstore like I do these days and I enjoyed revisiting novels that I’ve read, enjoyed and loved. I read The Thirteenth Tale around 2009 when I was looking for other books similar to Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind (commentary) and I remember enjoying it. I decided to revisit it recently since it’s been a while and I didn’t remember too much about the details but here’s a funny thing about the re-read: I absolutely remembered nothing about the book. I guess that was the result of having read too many novels in the past few years, the details of some just completely escape me. But it was thrilling to re-read this book and not fully remember the twist and turns that were coming (I knew they were coming, but I forgot what they were =P). May contain some spoilers ahead!
I’m not sure if this was the same sentiment I had the first time I read the novel but I was far more interested in Vida Winters’ recollections than the present-day end of the story. It is truly Gothic in terms of setting, mood, the direction of the story and the lives of the characters in that half. The reader is curious to know what’s in store for Adeline and Emmeline, the twins, how Vida Winters came to be the person she was at the start of the novel. There are secrets at every corner, more rooms than one could fathom and familiar tropes you may have read in classic novels like Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White–both of which were referred to frequently.
And then, of course, there’s the twist at the end of Winter’s story. The reveal was pretty good, I totally forgot about that one particular detail and how it completely shakes up the story as the reader knows it.
If there’s anything about the plot itself that dragged a bit for me, it was Margaret’s subplot about the twin that never lived. While it is an important factor into understand Margaret’s character, it did lag a bit too long here and there to the point, hence my interest more in Winter’s storyline than hers. Watching her sort of reconnect and function with other people after feeling so disconnected for so long was interesting and compelling but then the short paragraphs re-focusing on the loss of her twin went on for too long IMO. Then again, I don’t know what it’s like to have a twin, but for story purposes I just thought it dwelt on those feelings for too long, losing the impact along the way.
What also drew me to this novel aside from the eerie mystery around Vida Winter’s early life was how this novel is very much about a love of books, storytelling, the written word. Margaret Lea is a stand-in for us, the reader, and growing up surrounded by such old and varied books sounded like paradise to me. Her reading habits also are reminiscent of my own, which perhaps is a sign of caution given what happens to her later on!
Overall, The Thirteenth Tale was an intriguing read that kept me wondering and guessing to the end. I can’t say if I’ve gotten anything different out of reading it the second time around since I don’t remember much from my first read. Nonetheless it’s highly recommendable if you’re looking for a novel with a Gothic flavour to it and a passion for books.